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Movie Review

Norman Rockwell painted "family" as we’d like it to be: smiling parents, freckled boys, blue-frocked girls, laughing babies, all glazed with a warm, sunset hue.

But not all families live in that glorious glow. The lighting turns harsh, the brushstrokes jagged and surreal—more Dal�� than Rockwell, more Munch than Monet. Those we love the most can hurt us the most. Those who build us up can tear us down.

Marine Capt. Sam Cahill adores his beautiful wife, Grace, dotes on his daughters and respects his father so much that he followed him into the military. He even cares deeply for his brother, Tommy—a troublemaker who can’t see past his next bottle of beer. Everyone else has given up on Tommy. But when they were kids, Sam saved Tommy from drowning. And maybe he thinks he can save him again. It’s no surprise then that Sam’s the only one waiting outside the gates when Tommy’s released from prison.

Sam loves his family, and they love him right back. He’s the glue that binds the Cahills together, the family’s golden hue.

Then, just like that, Sam is gone—killed, apparently, in Afghanistan. The Cahills begin to crumble: Grace can barely get out of bed. Sam’s father, Hank, downs whiskey after whiskey, secretly thinking the wrong son died. Tommy suffers too: His only advocate is gone, and he can feel the rest of the family hating him for it.

"I’d cut my throat to bring him back, Dad," he says.

He’s resolved to make things better. And slowly he begins to push the family’s grief back. With the help of a few friends, he decides to remodel Grace’s incredibly ugly kitchen. He spends time with Sam’s daughters, helping them make snowmen and taking them skating. Grace begins seeing Tommy in a new, gentler light, and the four of them begin to wonder if there might, someday, be life after Sam—life, perhaps, together.

They couldn’t know that half a world away, Sam still lives. Still breathes. Still longs to come home and be reunited with his family. And he’s willing to do anything—anything—to make that happen.

[Note: The following sections contain spoilers.]

Positive Elements

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus tells us that you can’t step in the same river twice: Stones shift, mud moves, the water rushes on. Your foot, too, has been changed from dry and warm to wet and cold. The experience can never be duplicated.

When Sam comes home, he finds that both he and his world have changed. He’s an alien at home—an unneeded, inconvenient appendage.

This, in itself, is not positive. But it reflects a cruel, little discussed reality: For today’s military men and women, it can be tough to come home. Brothers offers a brutally extreme example, but I’m confident there are more than a few real-life soldiers, sailors and Marines who feel a little unneeded—perhaps even a little unwanted—after a long absence.

The film suggests that the best way to deal with those trying times is with effort and patience.

Grace—kind, stable and patient throughout—desperately wants to help Sam reacclimatize. She loves him dearly, even though he’s so strange and scary now, and she begs him to unburden his soul of what happened in Afghanistan. Even when Sam suddenly snaps and becomes a serious threat to himself and others, Grace sticks with him, finally getting him to open up. When he does, she doesn’t recoil in horror (as some undoubtedly would), but rather holds him in her arms.

Tommy goes through a striking transformation, morphing from a hardcore prodigal to a pillar of familial strength. He donates his time to Grace’s kitchen and his energy to her kids. He walks into the bank he robbed (the deed that got him tossed into prison) and apologizes to the teller he held up. And when Sam snaps, he courageously tries to both help him and protect Grace—at great personal risk.

The daughters try to help Mom cope with her grief, fixing pancakes for her one morning "so she won’t be sad."

Spiritual Content

The Cahills are at least nominally religious. We see them say a prayer before mealtime (Sam’s mom asks God to protect him during his upcoming tour of duty), and Sam’s funeral is held in a military chapel where we hear the congregation sing a traditional hymn. Grace wears a cross around her neck along with Sam’s wedding ring. Before a massive argument, Sam asks Grace whether the girls have been tucked in. "[Did they] say their prayers?" he says wryly.

We see signs that say, "Save our fallen soldiers" and "Bless our home."

Sexual Content

As Tommy and Grace spend time with each other, feelings grow between them, culminating one night when Tommy kisses Grace passionately and …

That’s it. Realizing the kiss was a mistake, Grace goes out for air and, after she’s gone, Tommy begins crying on the floor—perhaps grieving, perhaps ashamed. The incident is never repeated.

But the fact that the two of them don’t cheat doesn’t take the tension or suspicion from the air. Sam, when he comes home, believes that the two of them slept (or are sleeping) together. He confronts Tommy, telling him he’d understand if something happened. "I can forgive you," Sam says.

Tommy says nothing, and Sam accuses Grace of infidelity. Grace tells him exactly what happened. Sam doesn’t believe her and storms out of the house, walking through a graveyard until daybreak. He comes back in a better mood, telling Grace that he’s just happy to be alive and to have his family—but he doesn’t say whether he believes her now or not.

Then, one night, Sam’s oldest daughter, Isabella—angry and hurt and scared for a whole host of reasons—blurts out at a birthday party that "Mommy wishes she was still sleeping with Uncle Tommy instead of you!" It’s a lie told in bitter spite, but it appears to confirm all of Sam’s suspicions and fears.

Elsewhere, we see Grace and Sam in bed together before he leaves for Afghanistan, kissing passionately and presumably naked under the covers. Grace wears cleavage-revealing outfits at times. Both Sam and Tommy are seen shirtless. One of Tommy’s friends, after a can of paint spills all over his clothes, is forced to stand in his underwear for several minutes.

Violent Content

Does Sam really believe that Tommy and Grace are having an affair? Maybe. But it could be he’s also, subconsciously, punishing himself for what he endured—and did—in Afghanistan.

His helicopter crashes in the middle of a river (we see the impact from inside the copter before everything fades to white), but Sam and Pvt. Joe Willis make it out alive before being captured by Afghani terrorists.

Their long ordeal involves Sam being tortured (he’s branded with metal pokers) until he agrees to read an anti-American statement for a camera. And then he’s ordered to beat Joe to death with a metal pipe. He refuses. But a gun in his face and threats against his family make Sam snap. And we grimly watch him savagely kill his fellow soldier, his friend … the man he saved from the river.

The terrorist leader—perhaps to show he’s not to be meddled with—orders one of his henchmen to execute one of his own men for talking on his cell phone.

Once Sam’s home, his family (and we) see how viciously his captivity battered him—physically and emotionally. His sickly body is covered with scars, and he can’t seem to relate to anyone. He paces around the house at night, rearranging the kitchen and pulling out his gun whenever a dog barks.

When Isabella tells Sam her horrible lie, he loses it. And before he’s regained it, he yells, screams, swears and smashes Grace’s new kitchen with a crowbar. He pulls a pistol on Tommy. He fires into the air and he puts the weapon to his own head.

Elsewhere, we see Tommy angrily throw a set of keys at Grace.

Crude or Profane Language

About three dozen f-words, a half-dozen s-words and a smattering of other curses including "a‑‑," "b‑‑tard" and "b‑‑ch." God’s name is misused a handful of times (once with "d‑‑n"), and Jesus’ name is abused three or four times.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Tommy drinks to excess, and he asks Grace to pick him up after he has too many at a local bar and can’t pay the tab. Hank also drinks—whiskey mostly. He gulps from a flask after his son’s funeral. Both Tommy and Hank are shown impaired by their drinking.

Tommy smokes cigarettes. He and Grace share a marijuana joint.

Other Negative Elements

Isabelle, in her struggle to reconcile the father she used to know with the father she knows now, does more than just lie to him about Mom. She screams, "Why couldn’t you just stay dead?!"

And she’s not the only Cahill who says things that are regretted later.


When we first meet Sam, he’s warm and kind—a good soldier, a good father, a good husband. He’s strong and solid, needing to soap his wedding ring to get it off so Grace can hang it around her neck.

When Sam returns, he’s gaunt and pale, staring at the world with cold, sunken eyes. The ring hangs limply around his finger now. While his daughters skate, he sits and watches. When his daughters are playing in the backyard, he walks up to them—and they grow silent and scared: We see Isabella’s chin quiver, holding back tears.

Brothers, then, is a ghost story. Sam’s body made it out of Afghanistan. But he buried his soul when he killed his friend.

"The question is," he asks at the very end, "can I live again?"

The movie doesn’t know. And we don’t know. Sam’s recovery, if it’s possible, will be long and hard. Everyone’s been hurt. Everyone’s hurting. We leave the film without our happy ending, without our Norman Rockwell portrait. We’re left with the image of Grace holding Sam in her arms as tears silently trail down his face, the two surrounded by snow.

Brothers is not a graphic film, but it is brutal. It is not a titillating film, yet the suggestion of sex and passion and infidelity permeates. It is not an irrationally obscene film, and yet the words spoken here shock and horrify, cutting moviegoers to the bone.

How much easier it is to watch a man die on a screen than it is to watch a little girl struggle—bravely, desperately—to not cry in front of her father.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles



Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range



Jake Gyllenhaal as Tommy Cahill; Natalie Portman as Grace Cahill; Tobey Maguire as Capt. Sam Cahill; Bailee Madison as Isabelle Cahill; Taylor Geare as Maggie Cahill; Sam Shepard as Hank Cahill; Mare Winningham as Elsie Cahill


Jim Sheridan ( )





Record Label



In Theaters

December 4, 2009

On Video

March 23, 2010

Year Published



Paul Asay

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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